GOLDMINE: Congratulations on Timeless - The Big Hits. You still sound great, and thank you for your music throughout the years.
TONY ORLANDO: Oh, thank you. It has been an honor and a pleasure. I have been blessed. This is my sixth decade. Due to the pandemic, we have lost 133 dates on the road, so I miss that, but it was great making this album and continuing to be effective and creative. It is an incredible career that I have had, with great songwriters. Carole King and I started together in the early 1960s, with Gerry Goffin, Don Kirshner and others, then Hank Medress and Dave Appell during the Dawn years, and now Michael Omartian. Before the pandemic, Michael and I were asked to do a Broadway show on my life, writing fifteen songs with him. Everything is going quite well. Also, Toni Wine, who has been in my band for the past 27 years, does a great job singing background vocals on the new album. I have known her for sixty years. She co-wrote “Candida.”
GM: Which is one of the hits rerecorded on the Timeless album, presented in chronological order, followed by one new patriotic song. Let’s start with the 1961 pair “Halfway to Paradise” and “Bless You.”
TO: Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil wrote “Bless You” and Gerry Goffin and Carole King wrote “Halfway to Paradise,” among the earliest hits for both husband and wife teams, all who are portrayed in the Carole King musical Beautiful. Their friendships produced a great rivalry on who could have the next hit. I had the honor to have my first two hits from them. That show had me in tears because I saw my childhood before my very eyes. I grew up with those four people. That is why I was interested in doing my show when I was asked. Even if it doesn’t achieve the success of Beautiful, at least for my children and my grandchildren there is a template of Daddy’s or Grandpa’s life for them to enjoy and have music to go with it.
GM: Going in chronological order, before we get to Dawn, let’s discuss a lesser known Top 40 single, “Make Believe” by Wind, which reached No. 28 in 1969. It has a bit of a 1910 Fruitgum Company “Indian Giver” sound but mainly reminds me of The 4 Seasons.
TO: I was working for Clive Davis at CBS’ April Blackwood Music publishing arm from 1966 through 1970. I wasn’t even making records at that point in time. Bo Gentry and Kenny Laguna, who produces all of Joan Jett’s records, and Bo and Kenny were also involved with Tommy James and The Shondells, were behind that one. We were all in the same building at 1650 Broadway Avenue, across the street from the Brill building, where Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the godfathers of rock and roll, worked. Allegro Recording Studio was in the 1650 Broadway building and I was on the second floor. I received a call from Bo Gentry to do him a favor and come downstairs to the studio to record a demo for Frankie Valli. So I did what I thought was a Frankie Valli impression, Kenny Laguna did the falsetto part and then I left. The next thing I know, they put the record out and told me that the record is a hit. Then they asked me for another favor, to put my voice on some album cuts. I told them, “I work for Clive Davis. I really don’t want to have a career as a singer anymore. I’m doing quite well behind a desk and I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize that, but I’ll come down and do you this favor.” So I went downstairs again and recorded more songs so that they could have a full album. I asked, “Why don’t we put a couple of the April Blackwood Music songs on the album so that I can feel good about servicing my publishing company in the right way?” They agreed. I put some Chip Taylor compositions on that recording. The record came out and did fine. Then a year later, similarly, Hank Medress came into my office and asked for a favor. He played me a demo of “Candida” which ended up being the song people know, but without my voice on it. I called the head of Bell Records and told them that I think that Hank has a potential hit for them. It worked. They loved the record and I thought that was the end of the favor, that Hank’s song would be recorded on Bell. Then Hank visited me again and said that Bell wouldn’t release it unless he changed the lead voice on the record as they didn’t like the singer. I told him that he should find a lead singer. Hank asked, “How about you?” I said, “Oh, Hank, come on. I can’t do that.” Hank said, “I swear. I promise I won’t say that it is Tony Orlando.” You were called Wind, maybe I should try with a similar name but spell it R-E-I-G-N?” I told him, “I don’t care what you call it. I just don’t want to lose my job.” He promised to keep it a secret. Hank booked time in the studio and let me know what day to be there. When I went into the studio, I did not know the full song. I asked, “What’s the first line?” Then we recorded the song line by line until we got to the chorus, which I knew. We finished it within the hour that Hank had booked at the studio on an evening after I got off work. Keep in mind I received no recognition or money for the Wind record, which was fine with me. I was about to become the Vice President of CBS Music at the age of 23 and I didn’t want to risk that. I asked Hank if he decided on a name for the group and if it was going to be Reign. He said, “Well, the Bell Records promotion man’s daughter’s name is Dawn. I think if I name the group Dawn, he might push the record a little harder.” So he named the group Dawn and lo and behold, the record came out and became a Top 5 gold single nationally and I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t tell my wife. I didn’t tell my friends. I didn’t want to lose my job at CBS. I was driving around New York City and heard Bruce Morrow announce that the song was No. 1 on WABC AM. Soon after, Hank Medress came back in my office, like Bo Gentry did with the Wind album and asked me to cut the follow up single. I said, “You guys are really a pain. I can’t tell anybody about this.” He asked, “Do want a deal? How about a penny a record?” That’s what I got paid for “Candida.” He played me “Knock Three Times.” I said, “Knock three times on the ceiling if you want me. Twice on the pipe if the answer is no. This song will only be a hit in Brooklyn. In the Midwest, Hank, they don’t have exposed pipes for steam heat. These are in tenement buildings. Okay. I will cut it for you because it won’t be a hit.” That record came out and it seemed like in a week or two it was the biggest record in the country and that No. 1 single ended up selling four million records, so between those two singles, they sold six million copies and no one knew it was me. I finally went to Clive Davis and said, “Clive, something has happened and I will need to leave the company.” He looked at me and said, “Why, because you are Dawn?” I asked, “Do you know this?” He replied, “It is the worst kept secret in show business. Of course, I know. I tell you what Tony, this has been your dream since you were a little boy. You go find your dream and you can always come home if it doesn’t happen for you.” I left the general managership, about to become Vice President, at the age of 23 to become Tony Orlando and Dawn.
GM: Your next No. 1 gold single was “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” which became the biggest single of 1973, as soldiers were coming home from Vietnam.
TO: The song came out and I received a call at my home from none other than Bob Hope, who I had never met. At first I thought someone was kidding me. He said, “I want you to come to Dallas to play at the Cotton Bowl. We are welcoming home our POWs from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. There will be 70,000 people at the Cotton Bowl and I would like you to open the show with ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree’ because the opening line is ‘I’m coming home. I’ve done my time.’ That is perfect for them.” I had not sung that song in person before that. I went down to Dallas and, sure enough, there was a list of stars as long as your arm, and we opened the show. Sitting on the 50 yard line were our American POWs, over 500 of them, in an audience of 70,000 people. I start singing ‘Yellow Ribbon’ and I get to the chorus and I hear what sounds like 70,000 people singing ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon.’ Then I look and I see the POWs are singing just that line, too. Then they would stop. Then sing just that line again because that is all they knew. These POWs eyes hadn’t even adjusted to daylight yet. They had broken legs and broken arms from torture and they were all singing that line from the song except for one POW who had his head down. It was killing me that he wasn’t clapping along like the rest of them. I thought I may have said something that upset this man. After the show, I went up to Bob Hope and asked, “Mr. Hope, did you see that one POW who wasn’t clapping his hands or singing along? Do you think I said something to upset him?” He said, “Why don’t you just go and ask him?” So I went up to the POW and said, “Excuse me. My name is Tony Orlando. I opened the show tonight and I hope that I didn’t say anything to upset you. I noticed that you weren’t clapping and singing along.” He said, “Oh, Tony, I’m so sorry. My name is John McCain. I hope you won’t be offended but they broke and pulled my shoulder out of its socket so I can’t clap my hands. What you didn’t see were my big toes keeping time in my shoes.” Ha ha. We became friends after that. Then the song became a worldwide hit. The next thing I know is that Fred Silverman of CBS hired us to do the Tony Orlando and Dawn variety show. The records were not called Tony Orlando and Dawn then, they were just Dawn with Featuring Tony Orlando in tiny print. So the name Tony Orlando and Dawn was born on the television variety show.
GM: My favorite song of yours, during the time when the variety show was on in the mid-1970s, is “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You).” It is so soulful.
TO: Awe. Thank you! You know, R&B is my heart. I was co-hosting the Golden Globe Awards in Los Angeles and we came to a commercial break. Peter Wolf of The J. Geils Band was married to Faye Dunaway and he called me over, “Hey Tony, come over here. I want you to meet Faye. She is an expert on doo-wop records.” So we did some music trivia together including record label colors. She said, “You know Tony, I know your style of singing. You should rerecord Jerry Butler’s “He Will Break Your Heart.” Peter said, “Let’s do it!” So in the hallway, Peter, Faye and I began singing that song, with me singing the lead. He said, “You see. That would be a hit for you. Faye is right.” I said, “You know what. I am going to tell Hank that we are going to cut that song.” About a week later I was in the studio and told Hank that I want to cut the song but I wanted to call Curtis Mayfield, who co-wrote the song, to see if I could change the title from “He Will Break Your Heart” to “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You)” because Jerry Butler never sang any line that said “he will break your heart.” I called Curtis and asked if I could change the title and he asked, “Are you cutting it with the girls? Is it considered to be a single?” I said, “Yes, with Telma and Joyce.” He said, “You three are so hot that I don’t care what you change the name to.” I asked him, “Why didn’t you call it ‘He Don’t Love You?’” He said, “Tony, someone told me that was poor grammar and I didn’t want to come off as an ignorant black man.”
GM: Let me share a Curtis Mayfield and Dawn connection trivia. You are both on the K-tel compilation album 20 Power Hits Volume 2 with “Candida” and “Knock Three Times” and my favorite Curtis Mayfield single “If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Going to Go.”
TO: Ha ha ha. That’s great. I’m pleased that Curtis gave me his permission to change the title so that I could record that early Jerry Butler song with the title that I wanted. Three people who inspired my singing in the early days were Jerry Butler, Sam Cooke and Ben E. King.
GM: Speaking of that soulful R&B sound, the flip side of “He Don’t Love You” was “Pick it Up” which is equally soulful and again, one of my favorites of yours.
TO: You are something! You know your stuff. Not too many people know “Pick it Up.” Wow! Sometimes you fall in love with your flip sides more than your A sides but in this case I love both sides of the single. That album was our first on Elektra after we left Bell.
Flip side: Pick It Up
A side: He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You)
Top 100 debut: March 15, 1975
Peak position: No. 1
GM: In 2007, I was watching The Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon and I remember you singing a new patriotic song which I searched for and never found. Now you have a new patriotic song closing out your new album, “America is My Hometown.”
TO: On the telethon I did “God’s Country,” which I wrote and never released, as a prayer after 9/11 and another one called “American Highrise.” “America is My Hometown” is new and I co-wrote that with Michael Omartian. In my travels, I have learned that our country is humongous. If you drive from New York to L.A., it takes forever. As you drive through small towns, you realize their importance in a country of this size. I thought if we could think about my country to be my hometown I felt there would be a lot more peace and understanding in our country. I have lived in the middle of the country in Branson, Missouri for almost thirty years and they have embraced me like I was born here and we have been doing veterans’ shows here every Veterans Day since 1993. Thank you so much for this article. After six decades in this business I am proud that Time Life has released this new album. It is an honor.